The Unappetizing Realities of Factory-Farmed Meat

I grew up on a farm. In addition to corn and soy, my family used to raise chickens and pigs and cows -- a few dozen chickens, a dozen pigs, maybe, and a handful of cows -- but that was years ago. The price of meat has been so low for so long, for both the consumer and the farmers who sell it, that it's no longer really possible to make a profit when you have that few animals. That's why, these days, something on the order of 98% of our meat in America comes from factory farms that raise thousands upon thousands of animals at a time. To satisfy our ever-increasing demand for cheap meat, the places where animals are raised for slaughter have changed so radically that it's not even really fair to call them farms. They resemble the place I grew up not at all.

The opening paragraph from a Time article called "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food" sets the scene well:

Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.

There's plenty of gross and alarming facts about pork and beef production and fishing practices (for every ten fish in the ocean at the beginning of this century, one remains), but a few passages I ran across regarding poultry farming, in Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent book Eating Animals, sum up the whole depressing situation rather nicely (or terribly, as it were).

First, there's the well-documented problem of cruelty in factory-farmed poultry facilities (watch this), where up to 50,000 birds can be housed in cages with a smaller footprint than a sheet of printer paper, in buildings where they never see natural daylight, bred to be so meaty that even the "free range" ones can often only take a few steps at a time before collapsing under their own unsupportable weight. (Friends of mine raise chickens like these -- AKA "broilers" -- AKA "meatbirds" -- in a backyard coop at their house in Maine, and tell me that even under the best of conditions -- lots of green space to roam around in, organic food, etc. -- they are so genetically compromised by their breeding that they spend most of their time sitting around, immobilized by their own massive weight.)

But animal cruelty doesn't make us sick. What does is dirty meat, which lax oversight and weak food safety laws allow for. This is why scientific studies and government records suggest that virtually all chickens become infected with E. coli and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. "Around 8 percent of birds become infected with salmonella," Foer writes. "Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter. Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove slime, odor, and bacteria."

Of course, consumers might notice that their chickens don't taste quite right -- but the birds will be injected (or otherwise pumped up) with "broths" and salty solutions to give them what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell and taste. (A recent study by Consumer Reports found that chicken and turkey products, many labeled as natural, "ballooned with 10 to 30 percent of their weight as broth, flavoring, or water.")

That "added water" is a story all its own -- and it's one of many bizarre additives to modern chickens that were unnecessary (and undreamed of) back on my family's farm. It's used to cool the chickens after they're slaughtered -- they go together by the thousands into massive refrigerated tanks of water, which contain what has been described as a "fecal soup" for all the bacteria and filth floating around in it. "By immersing clean, healthy birds in the same tank with dirty ones," Safran quotes an expert, "you're practically ensuring cross-contamination." He goes on to describe the controversial process in some detail:

While a significant number of European and Canadian poultry processors employ air-chilling systems, 99 percent of US poultry producers have stayed with water-immersion systems and fought lawsuits from both consumers an the beef industry to continue the outmoded use of water-chilling. It's not hard to figure out why. Air-chilling reduced the weight of a bird's carcass, but water-chilling causes a dead bird to soak up water (the same water known as "fecal soup"). One study has shown that simply placing the chicken carcasses in sealed plastic bags during the chilling stage would eliminate cross-contamination. But that would also eliminate an opportunity for the industry to turn wastewater into tens of millions of dollars' worth of additional weight in poultry products.

OK, grossed out yet? Now prepare to get angry:

Not too long ago there was an 8 percent limit set by the USDA on just how much absorbed liquid one could sell consumers at chicken meat prices before the government took action. When this became public knowledge in the 1990s, there was an understandable outcry. Consumers sued over the practice, which sounded to them not only repulsive, but like adulteration. The courts threw out the 8 percent rule as "arbitrary and capricious."

Ironically, though, the USDA's interpretation of the court ruling allowed the chicken industry to do its own research to evaluate what percentage of chicken meat should be composed of fouled, chlorinated water. After industry consultation, the new law of the land allowed slight more than 11 percent liquid absorption (the exact percentage is indicated in small print on packaging -- have a look next time). As soon as the public's attention moved elsewhere, the poultry industry turned regulations meant to protect consumers to its own advantage.

There is, quite literally, poop in there. Legal poop. If you're gonna eat that stuff, cook the living heck out of it.

There's lots more to say about factory-farmed meat, but I'll have to return to the subject another time.

Quick True/False: World Capitals
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
10 Pats Born on St. Patrick's Day
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Need some St. Patrick's Day conversation fodder that doesn't involve leprechauns or four-leaf clovers? Ask your friends to name a "Pat" born on St. Patrick's Day. If they can't, they owe you a drink—then you can wow them with this list of 10.


Princess Patricia was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who gave up all of her royal titles when she married a commoner. She was born at Buckingham Palace on March 17, 1886.


The Dallas star was born on March 17, 1949. And here's a totally random fact about Duffy: His nephew is Barry Zito, former MLB pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.


Pattie Boyd
Larry Ellis, Express/Getty Images

Pattie Boyd is well-known to lovers of classic rock: She has been married three times, including once to George Harrison and once to Eric Clapton, who both wrote a couple of the most romantic songs in rock history in her honor (including The Beatles's "Something" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"). Boyd was a model when she met Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night in 1964; the pair were married two years later. They divorced in 1977 and she married Clapton, Harrison's close friend, in 1979. She also had an affair with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones toward the end of her marriage to The Quiet Beatle.


Belfast-born Pat Rice is a former footballer and coach who spent the bulk of his career with Arsenal F.C. (that's "football club," a.k.a. soccer to us Americans). He joined the Gunners in 1964 as a mere apprentice, turning pro a couple of years later. He became captain in 1977 and left the club for a few years in the early 1980s to go to Watford, but returned after he retired from playing in 1984. In 2012, after nearly 30 years with the organization, he announced his retirement.


Patty Maloney is an actress with dwarfism who stands just three feet, 11 inches tall. She has appeared in many movies and T.V. shows over the years, including operating the Crypt Keeper puppet in Tales from the Crypt. She also played Chewbacca's son Lumpy in The Star Wars Holiday Special.


Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick in 'Six Feet Under'

Ok, so Mathew St. Patrick is the stage name of the actor, but he was born Patrick Matthews in Philadelphia on March 17, 1968. You probably know him best as David's boyfriend Keith on Six Feet Under.


He may not be a household name, but the recording artists Patrick Adams writes for and helps produce certainly are. Adams has been involved in the careers of Salt-N-Pepa, Sister Sledge, Gladys Knight, Rick James, and Coolio, among others.


It's possible you look at Patrick McDonnell's work every day, depending on which comics your newspaper carries. McDonnell draws a strip called Mutts featuring a dog and a cat named Earl and Mooch, respectively. Charles Schulz called it one of the best comic strips of all time.


 Singer/Guitarist Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins performs onstage during Live Earth New York at Giants Stadium on July 7, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
Evan Agostini, Getty Images

Yes, you know him better as just plain old Billy Corgan: he's the face of the Smashing Pumpkins, engages in public feuds with Courtney Love, and maybe once dated Jessica Simpson. He made his debut on March 17, 1967.


Patricia Ford is a retired model probably best known for her Playboy photoshoots in the 1990s.


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